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Stanley Cup 101: Sabres Cup Dreams Hinge on Bolstering Defense

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Note: this is being re-posted today (October 4th) as part of our 2011-12 season preview. While written in June, the information below is more relevant now than ever.

 

I’m donning my professor’s cap today.

Remember my cute little “picket fence defense” lecture?

No?  Sigh.  Well pay attention now kids, because this stuff is important.  And it will be on the test – the test that is a Stanley Cup Final. Got your attention now, I bet.  Good.  Moving on.

Back before the playoffs started, I analyzed what was one of the more glaring weaknesses on the Sabres roster – their young defense. Since then, the Sabres collapsed out of the first round, and Lindy Ruff didn’t waste much time in declaring that one of the team’s top priorities in the off-season will be to “develop a lockdown pair.”

DangerDangerHighVoltageWhenWeTouchWhenWeDance 300x167 Stanley Cup 101: Sabres Cup Dreams Hinge on Bolstering Defense

When all else fails, buy the school a building. Or in our case, a new defense.

I know that many Sabres fans would love for Darcy Reiger to take his new, fat, diamond studded Sabres wallet and hand it straight over to Brad Richards’ agent when UFA negotiations open up on July 1st.  Admittedly, I’m one of them.  I’m a glutton for goals, and could only imagine how many we would be all gorging on if Richards was lined up between Vanek and Stafford.

But folks, we must remain focused.  Our problem at defense hasn’t gone away.  And it’s a big problem.

From that initial lecture:

(On March 18th) The Sabres have 203 goals for and 202 goals against.  This equal ratio is a stat that has been dogging them for months. They can’t seem to score more goals then they allow, and I find that disturbing.  What is more disturbing is every team ahead of Buffalo, save Tampa Bay, enjoys a wide winning margin in that category.  (Carolina posts a terrible 198/212.) Brad Boyes was a nice addition for the stretch run, but this team is going to learn to have to finish as well as play smarter defense – and quickly – if they are to make the playoffs, or survive the 1st round.

Since the 18th, the Sabres have gone 5-1-1.  Accordingly, their goals for/goals against ratio improved dramatically, to 226/214.  It’s a telling stat: Carolina has gone 4-1 since the 18th, and their ratio has markedly improved to 220/228.

Stick with me here, class.  I’ve gone back and bold-faced the key points, and will continue below:

So what does it all mean?

For Buffalo, it means that the Sabres, for the greater portion of the regular season, have not been able to score enough goals to keep up with the amount that they let in.  Their offense has scored enough goals (226) to be ranked 4th in the East in that category, trailing only Philadelphia (243), Boston (232), and Tampa Bay (230).

The Sabres’ offense is great, but their defense is, well, not so great. The teams ahead of them, those considered to be front-runners for a shot at the Cup, all show a commanding mastery of the goals for/goals against ratio, and it’s no coincidence – teams control the scoreboard by keeping all three zones under control.  It’s the Sabres’ play in their back end – the first step of every hockey rush, and the front lines of defense against a flurry from the opposition – that have kept them out of Cup talk, let alone much playoff talk.

The obvious statement from the professor troll in the front row here is “Ah yes, defense does win championships.”  This is where I glare at said troll and say “Don’t cheapen my lectures with cliches.”  There really is a lot to consider when putting a championship defense together, folks – and we’ll look at how that has been done over the last 10 years.  Let’s quickly finish up reviewing this previous lecture, first.  (Exasperated raspberry sigh from the dude in the back row, and pen clicking all over the place, I know, I know – stick with me.)

Buffalo is no lock for the playoffs, and the reason for this is the failure to be reliable in all three zones of the ice.  Lindy Ruff has implemented a style of play – “The System” – which is supposed to keep all players, at all times, focused on controlling the puck, the play, and the game.  The Sabres do their best, but their young defense just isn’t smart and experienced enough yet. In fact, Buffalo only has three defenders over the age of 24.  A disturbing list:

  • Steve Montador, 31
  • Jordan Leopold, 30
  • Shaone Morrisson, 28
  • Chris Butler, 24
  • Andrej Sekera, 24
  • Marc-Andre Gragnani, 24
  • Mike Weber, 23
  • Tyler Myers, 21

Of those guys over 24, Morrisson has hardly been a defensive stalwart this season, and Leopold/Montador have not been able to stay on the ice. Indeed, if there is a weakness of the Blue and Gold that teams are going to expose until the end of this hockey year, it is going to be the green defense corps.  Of all places, it is in their own zone, from where the team must take it’s most important steps, where their Achilles Heel is exposed.

I put that last sentence in bold because I really dig it.

Anyway, the Sabres problem is not effectually at center.  Yes, they certainly need to add more talent and depth at that position, but last season proved that they certainly have no problem scoring goals.  Brad Richards is a sexy idea, I get that – but if adding him means ignoring the need to augment our defense corps, then our Stanley Cup dreams are likely doomed.

Now, let’s talk about how a championship defense is made.

Bruce McCurdy of the Edmonton Journal wrote a smart piece that not only confirmed my worries about our green defense, but provided an analysis of all Cup-winning team defenses from the last ten years (this year’s Bruins excluded).  The results of his study are truly damning of our current roster.

Please welcome our guest lecturer for the day.  Take it away, Bruce:

My own approach here will (namely be) to examine the defence corps of all Stanley Cup champions over the last decade. How did the winners go about assembling their blueline crews? Let’s have a quick look team-by-team and then draw some broader conclusions.

2001AvsDefense Stanley Cup 101: Sabres Cup Dreams Hinge on Bolstering Defense

Bruce's first slide.

(After referencing the next 9 winning defenses, McCurdy went on to assess his findings):

As a whole, the champion defencemen were a veteran group. The average age was something over 30, with the top-pairing guys averaging a year or two more than that. Among 28 minute-munchers who averaged over 20 minutes a night (highlighted in bold), fifteen were 30 or older, just three 25 or younger.

Each of the last four Stanley Cup champs has featured a major UFA signing on the back end.

Thank you, Bruce.  I’ll take it from here.

This season, our defense was exposed.  It was exposed in the regular season.  It was exposed in the playoffs.  This is not a defense that gets to the Big Dance.  This is the kind of defense that your own offense has to outscore.

I do believe that Sekera, Butler, Weber, Gragnani, and of course, Myers, are all going to evolve into top-notch defenders in their own niches, as they get older.  The problem right now, however, is Ryan Miller is 31, and he is getting older too.  The “old core” of Roy, Pominville, Vanek, et al simply cannot afford to wait for this group of young defensemen to mature.  Pegula has this team on a very specific course right now – to win a Cup in three years.  In order to make that possible, balance has to be restored between the offense and defense.

There are plenty of UFA defensemen available this summer that fit this very simple but desperate need.  Meanwhile, the Sabres do have good trading power with these kids on the back end – as well as several blue chip defensive prospects.  Buffalo would be wise to use this cache to either regain that 2nd round pick that they lost in the Brad Boyes trade – or dare I dream, to make a package deal to lure a stud center like Paul Stastny away from a team.

From here, what needs to be done is clear.  The defense has to be bolstered.  It can be done, and at the same time, the center position can be improved.

It’s now up to Headmaster Darcy to make it happen.

Class… DISMISSED!

Go Sabres.

See also: “We’ve got a lot of Defensemen: How to Add Bieksa, Ehrhoff, or Wisniewski;” “Target: Brent Burns;” “Target: Paul Stastny

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